“We were a fun party band who somewhere along the way learnt how to write songs,” Michael Stipe is quoted as saying in the notes to Craft’s Recordings new boxset R.E.M. At The BBC. Of course, R.E.M. was much more than that over the course of their nearly 30-year career, going from college underground band to alternative pioneers to global superstars. And with Craft Recordings’ new 8-CD/1-DVD box, you can trace that career as seen and heard by UK audiences over the years.
The quartet of Stipe (lead vocals), Bill Berry (drums), Peter Buck (guitars) and Mike Mills (bass/backing vocals) from Athens, Georgia were first seen by a large British audience when they appeared on BBC2’s long-running Old Grey Whistle Test on November 20, 1984. The first song they performed was Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” which was a staple of their live shows at the time but probably seemed a curious choice to the viewing public. The group followed that up with “Pretty Persuasion” off of their second album Reckoning and “Old Man Kensey” which had not yet appeared on an album. The U.K. got a bigger taste of the band when, the next night, BBC Radio 1 aired a 16-song live show performed at Rock City in Nottingham. These two performances kicked off the British broadcaster’s association with the band. At The BBC chronicles that association with a variety of in-studio and live concerts ranging from that first appearance through 2008.
Discs 1 and 2 of the box highlight in-studio performances on BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 from 1991 up to March 26, 2008 (the most recent date covered in the box). The group appeared on such shows as Nicky Campbell Session Into The Night, John Peel Session, Mark and Lard, Drivetime, and Live Lounge. The second disc is a full 14-song set performed for a small audience of around 200 people for a 1998 episode of John Peel Session. Disc 3 kicks off the concert recordings and presents the aforementioned 1984 concert in Nottingham. By the time their next concert aired on July 30, 1995 (heard on Discs 4-5), R.E.M. was a much different band and had become huge successes in the U.K. thanks to 1992’s Automatic For the People. But they had taken a break from the road and had only recently returned to touring to promote 1994’s Monster. The box then jumps ahead four years to June, 1999 to chronicle on Discs 6 and 7 the audio of the group’s headlining performance at that year’s Glastonbury Festival, which also aired on BBC television. It was once again a different R.E.M. as Bill Berry had quit the group in 1997. The final concert is a shorter 12-song set aired on September 15, 2004, a couple of weeks before the release of their album Around The Sun.
Disc 9 is the DVD, comprising two main components. The first is the program Accelerating Backwards which chronicles R.E.M.’s appearances on BBC television from shows such as Old Grey Whistle Test, The Late Show and Top of the Pops from 1984-2004 interspersed with interviews with the band. The program first aired in 2008 as part of the promotion for the album Accelerate. The second is an episode of Later…With Jools Holland which saw the group performing thirteen songs. It was one of Holland’s special shows devoted to a single artist and aired the same day as the release of Up on October 27, 1998. Three bonus videos are appended, a performance from 2001 Top of the Pops and two from a 2003 episode of Holland.
Taken as a whole, R.E.M. At The BBC makes a very nice chronicle of nearly all of the band’s career. There is surprisingly little repetition among the material although huge hits and fan-favorites such as “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon” do make several appearances. R.E.M. was not a group that did much jamming or improvisation on their songs during live performances so the versions here stick pretty closely to the studio originals. But this does allow you to focus in on the strength of the songwriting in the material and the various directions the group took as the years progressed. Of most interest to fans and collectors is probably the 1984 concert, as there has been relatively little live material released from R.E.M.’s IRS years as opposed to the later Warner period. The Glastonbury Festival show however does present a very energized group even without Berry in the line-up. Perhaps serving as the headliners and being shown to a national audience brought an extra spark.
There are a couple of caveats to the box, however. The first is the sound quality. While the audio has been taken from the best available sources, the sources themselves appear to have issues with the way the shows were recorded. The mic set-up seems to be at a distance for nearly everything except the in-studio performances on Disc 1. This makes it feel sometimes like you are listening from the audience and lends a tinny quality to the audio. The instrumentation is always clear but sometimes the vocals become muddy, which is unfortunate. And while it was never advertised as such, it should be noted that this box does not feature all of R.E.M.s appearances on the BBC. There are several omissions that you learn from reading the notes, such as “Old Man Kensey” from their very first appearance. It might have also have been nice to include the video of the Glastonbury performance.
As to the physical package, it is well done. The nine discs are housed in paper-sleeves in a sturdy CD-sized slipcase box. The 64-page, full-color booklet contains an essay from Tom Doyle explaining the group’s history with the BBC and also boasts remembrances from BBC personnel including Jo Whiley, Mark Hagen, Mark Radcliffe, Steve Lamacq, Matt Everitt and Mark Cooper. Michael Stipe worked with Chris Bilheimer on the design and so the package looks very much of a piece with R.E.M.’s aesthetic.
Audio issues aside, R.E.M. fans should enjoy this set. It provides a compelling look back at the majority of their career with some rarer material. It makes a nice companion to 2014’s 6-disc DVD box REMTV which chronicled the group’s television appearances in the US on MTV and related networks over the years. Listening to the songs assembled over the nearly 25 years R.E.M. At The BBC surveys, it becomes quite evident that the group went far beyond the “party band” Michael Stipe asserted they were.
R.E.M. At The BBC is available from Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada! A 2-LP highlights version ( (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada) and 2-CD distillation (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada) are also available!